Dear Ireland: we chat to some of the country’s greatest artists about their postcards to Ireland

Ireland’s theatres may be closed but arguably none are more active than Dublin’s Abbey theatre, which every night this week is screening 50 new monologues in a series called "Dear Ireland". Here, writers Joseph O’Connor, Manchán Magan, Mark O’Halloran and actors Kathy Rose O’Brien, Denise Gough, Cathy Belton and Clare Dunne, tell us about their unique entries


Just last month the Abbey put out a call to action, inviting artists to submit original short plays that answer the coronavirus-era conundrum: What should Ireland write on a postcard to itself? 

Among many things, the pandemic has created a seminal moment for us all to ask ourselves what we want our society to be going forward. This provided the starting point for each of the 50 writers chosen by the Abbey who then nominated 50 actors to perform their monologues, each one self-recorded from self-isolation.

All 50 short plays are being broadcast in four instalments on the Abbey’s YouTube channel at 7.30pm until Friday inclusive, each one with a playback of 24 hours. But worry not if you’ve already missed the first ones: from May 2, all four videos will be online for six months.

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We go behind the scenes of selected works, and find out how its makers are coping under lockdown, including the bestselling author Joseph O’Connor and his nominated actor Kathy Rose O’Brien, plus fellow wordsmiths Manchán Magan, Mark O’Halloran and actors Denise Gough, Cathy Belton and Clare Dunne.

Joseph O’Connor, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and broadcaster

I’ve been a writer for 30 years now, so I’ve had a long training in being self-isolated when I need to be, since a certain amount of solitude goes with the job

I got involved in "Dear Ireland" because the Abbey invited me onboard, and because I was intrigued and felt challenged by the idea. For four years I wrote a radio diary for RTÉ’s Drivetime programme, and I loved the immediacy of writing pieces quickly.

A novel takes me three years, a long, slow burn, so it’s always great to be asked to write something right now, and to redraft it quickly and intensively, to a pressing deadline. And I love writing for theatre, the particular challenges of the form, which are very different from writing a novel.

My piece, Grace, is a series of monologues spoken by a woman to her phone over a week or ten nights during the Covid-19 lockdown. She’s married, in her thirties, living in suburban Dublin, has two children. During the day she has to keep the show on the road, so these moments in which she goes upstairs and talks to the camera are a sort of release for her, as well as being a kind of diary. One model for the piece was those wonderful Talking Heads solo television plays by Alan Bennett, whose writing I love.

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My actor is Kathy Rose O’Brien, and I nominated for her because I have worked with her a few times before and I always admire her work very much. I’d go so far as to say I wrote the piece for Kathy Rose. It was her voice that I heard in my head, as I wrote the lines.

I was delighted she accepted the part and I enjoyed the back and forth between us, as we talked through the character. I found Kathy Rose’s storytelling instincts really fascinating. A theatre piece isn’t even nearly complete until it meets its actor.  The refinements the actor brings are so nuanced and vivid.

Like everyone else, I don’t like the lockdown, but I’m getting on okay. I’ve been a writer for 30 years now, so I’ve had a long training in being self-isolated when I need to be, since a certain amount of solitude goes with the job. I’m working on a novel and trying to stay healthy. I’m lucky to have [wife and fellow author] Anne Marie and both our sons here, and the sea is within our two-kilometre radius, so I’m very blessed.

Kathy Rose O’Brien, actor

I think a much more robust national conversation needs to happen in Irish homes and in the media around how much our artists mean to us. It’s one of the things we relish most as a nation, our performing artists and those who facilitate them; what forum are we creating for them to perform in and entertain us?

I saw on social media that the Abbey were working on a quick response project from Irish artists but I had no idea if I’d be asked to be involved in "Dear Ireland". Then I got a phone call saying Joseph O’Connor had requested me for his piece – that was a unique and lovely feeling after weeks of isolation!

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It felt like receiving a hug, to be honest. I called my parents, my aunt, my uncle in Limerick… I had some actual ’news’ for our daily phone calls! It gave some frustrated cocooners a real boost and, personally, a few weeks after receiving that call, I could see what it meant to get back to work: to be given parameters within which to perform, to have a new virtual stage built. I felt like I could both relax and focus for the first time in weeks.

Grace is the story of a woman at home with her husband and two young children; she’s ricocheting between emotional states but also some quiet, beautiful realisations. She’s processing in real time – Joseph has set it over about 10 days – and you watch her go on a journey. I think what emerges is a love story, but I’m far too close to it to know if that is what others will take away from it.

Joe wrote a playlet that is sensitive and apparently simple, focusing on emotions and words, so I didn’t have to employ pyrotechnics. I hope I honoured what he wrote and where he set it, but in the final scene, it’s during that pink supermoon we had a few weeks ago. I managed to get a light outside to 'be' the Moon and I positioned myself in relation to it. It was really interesting using my brain in that way, I got to develop my storytelling-thinking. I’m very grateful for that. 

I was definitely at a loss those first few weeks of the lockdown. I cooked up a storm, worked out a lot and was emotionally fairly upbeat, but I couldn’t face writing or thinking about how to use my performance skills. Maybe I didn’t know what I wanted to say as a storyteller, but I think it was more a problem with energy. Perhaps a lot of people are also feeling that slow, steady depletion due to the strain; nothing much is getting done, but if you’ve made a meal, had a shower, made a phone call, it feels like a huge day. 

Going into the "Dear Ireland" project really shook off the torpor and, bar the agony of staring at my face alone for days (why can’t I just keep it still?!, etc), there was a delight in creating the piece visually. I had to deliver a film. A film that Joseph O’Connor had written!

I didn’t expect to learn new skills during this time - I mean apart from the ‘I’ll learn a new language during this pandemic’ nonsense, which I started out thinking six weeks ago… but when you’re motivated and engaged it’s amazing how passionate you become. I knew I wasn’t expected to make a perfect film – far from it – but I still stayed up late into the night tinkering with iMovie. It has excited me about creating work at home – after all I don’t know when I’ll be back on a stage. It’s a sobering thought, because the theatre-going community, and the experience of live theatre, provides such joy and... life. 

I think a much more robust national conversation needs to happen in Irish homes and in the media around how much our artists mean to us. It’s one of the things we relish most as a nation, our performing artists and those who facilitate them; what forum are we creating for them to perform in and entertain us? How will we all connect and feel human in the unique way that only live performance can give us? I’m excited that the Abbey has created a space for so many actors and playwrights so quickly. Performing from home may be something we will be doing a lot more of in the future.

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Photo by A Rogerson

Manchán Magan, travel writer, television presenter and Gaeilgeoir

I find Irish to be healing and nourishing when spoken by a native speaker from an area where it has been the means of communication for millennia

I was keen to write something grounding, something rooted in this time when all of us are being brought to ground. One of the very best things about this time, in which the world has stopped turning for many of us, is that we get to feel what it’s like to be still, to try putting down roots in one place again, rather than continually chasing distraction.

For me, nothing is more rooted than the Irish language – this soundscape that we have moulded with our bodies and our minds for 2,000 years, possibly far longer. I find Irish to be healing and nourishing when spoken by a native speaker from an area where it has been the means of communication for millennia.

I am biased towards the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht of West Kerry because that was where I’ve been hearing and speaking Irish since I was born. It was vital that I find a great Corca Dhuibhne actor to play the role and I was so thrilled when Bríd Criomhthain agreed, as she was my first choice. I’ve followed her performances as part of Aisteoirí Bhreanainn, and knew all about the awards she and her company had won at Féile Náisiúnta Drámaíochta.

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As for the content of my piece, I’m currently copy-editing my new book, which explores the insights and wisdom contained within the Irish language. It’ll be published by Gill Books in autumn and so I have many hundreds of potent, stimulating, soothing and intriguing words churning through my mind. I could have chosen any number from a whole array  of different themes and topics, but I wanted to address that fact that while this period is grounding, it is also unsettling. The carpet has been pulled out from under us, and we notice that what we thought was solid beneath our feet is in fact quicksand. I wanted to address this chasm that we are suddenly becoming aware of, both in our economic system and our ecology.

I wanted to balance this with examples of the way that the Irish language can lead us back towards a more rooted and sustainable relationship with the Earth, our surroundings, our bodies and inner selves. This was the message that I felt would be worth bringing out into the world at this time, with my "Dear Ireland" play Nach tú? (Isn’t it yourself?).

I have to admit I am really treasuring this time. I’m finally getting to arrange the raised beds and veg plots as I’ve always wanted them. I have 27 tonnes of compost arriving this week, to include a whole other food producing region, and am able to fully concentrate on some treasured projects about the heritage of Ireland that I’ve always wanted to. I had such fear about the drop in earnings at the beginning of the lockdown; now I’ve just adjusted to a simpler life. I am savouring the extra time, and not constantly racing around.

I feel this period is going to finally make us realise how totally interconnected the world is, and how each region impacts the other. I feel, or hope, that people will wake up to a more holistic view of the world, and realise that the simple one-track momentum that has driven us blindly forward must be reassessed.

Cathy Belton, actor

It was a joy to work with Blindboy. He was very clear in what he wanted, and how he wanted it performed, but was wonderfully open to suggestions and ideas

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I got involved with theDear Ireland” project after a call from my agent, who passed on the piece through the Abbey from Blindboy. After reading it, I didn’t think twice – it’s a brilliant piece of writing that I would describe as 'musings on Coronavirus and the Sullivan’s Dog.’

It was a joy to work with Blindboy. He was very clear in what he wanted, and how he wanted it performed, but was wonderfully open to suggestions and ideas also. Most of our collaboration was done through email and text.

I’m taking great comfort and solace from poetry right now. It’s a potent, quick shot of balm and inspiration. I was so sad to hear of the passing of  Eavan Boland, a gifted powerful poet and a change-maker for Irish women and artists. I went back and read many of her poems: Child of our Time is one of my favourites. I’m also catching up on so many films and TV. The Sopranos is an astonishing series to revisit, still up there as one of the greatest ever pieces of television.

It’s also a time to get through the pile of books beside my bed: Liz Nugent’s Our Little Cruelties, Hilary Fannin’s The Weight of Love and Anne Enright’s Actress have given me great joy these last few weeks. Mostly I’m enjoying just being and taking inspiration from the delightful trot of our dog, Daisy, as we set out every morning for a walk, the birdsong in the mornings, and the cherry blossoms.

Clare Dunne, actor, writer and filmmaker

I’m a believer in creativity being always available to me, lockdown or not; it’s just about turning up for it

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How did I get involved in "Dear Ireland"? I messaged the Abbey on Twitter when they announced it, hoping to be involved as either a writer as an actor, and I got picked to act by Jimmy Murphy.

We chatted on the phone from day one about ideas of how to create the best vehicle for the writing. He had to make a few edits really fast, which I then reworked. We discussed the usuals you would when rehearsing a play’s text but when it came to filming, he told me to go for it, whatever I thought I could do – just don’t feel you have to do it in your room to camera. Luckily I had my boyfriend and the beautiful countryside, so we took advantage… and I made a VO with an iPhone locked in a cupboard!

I would describe the piece as soothing, meditative, lyrical, poetic, nostalgic and hopeful for the future after all this.

I must admit I’m liking the downtime of the lockdown. Me and my boyfriend drove across Wales on a motorbike just so we could isolate in Ireland – we’re in Kells and it’s so beautiful. I have had some writing going but am also just catching up on reading, which is good for a writer to do, it gets you inspired. I’m currently reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because I am most certainly off the road for now. 

I miss hugging my nieces, sisters and parents, but I’ve a beautiful place to stay, with great people. We eat good food, have nice chats and I’m getting time to work when I need to. I certainly hope I finish something during this lockdown, but at the same time I’m a believer in creativity being always available to me, lockdown or not; it’s just about turning up for it.

Mark O’Halloran, writer and actor

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As a writer, it’s hard to imagine what stories people will want to listen to once this crisis is over, but I’m getting there with the work

When the Abbey calls, there is no way you can turn down your national theatre at a time like this. It felt like an important thing for me to do and I accepted immediately. I was also very honoured to have been asked.

My piece is about a man in his fifties called Joe, who is isolating alone. Joe has always had problems in his life and has been sort of broken, I suppose. The one constant was that his sister would come around and keep an eye on him and see him straight. But she is a nurse, so that’s impossible now.

Joe is left to phone calls and drinking cans at night, and trying to think things through. Strangely enough the crisis ends up offering Joe some new perspectives. He learns to see briefly beyond his own pain for the first time in his life, and perhaps this will be the saving of him.

I chose Andrew Bennett as the performer. He’s someone that I’ve been on stage with many times and who I hugely admire as an actor. He was in my film Garage and I think he was magic in that too, and there was never anyone else in my mind to do this part. So I was absolutely thrilled when he said yes.

I entered the lockdown with a few commissions to be getting on with and that has been a lifesaver, really. The difficult thing for us all at this moment, no matter what our work is, is keeping our heads’ straight and the concentration going. As a writer, it’s hard to imagine what stories people will want to listen to once this crisis is over, but I’m getting there with the work. 

I am isolating alone too, so that is odd. I miss people. Lots of time to read and think, and then a bit of jogging at night. The streets in my neighbourhood are amazing at that time – completely empty except for some wandering foxes.

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Denise Gough, actor

We’re not on holiday here, we’re living through a pandemic. Some days I’ll be productive and creative and other days I won’t. I’m not going to give myself a hard time if I don’t manage to write a novel in quarantine

My agent was approached with an offer to be involved in “Dear Ireland” and I jumped at the chance. The piece I’m in is a really beautiful work of writing by Sarah Hanly, about a health worker desperate for a shower during lockdown. It’s an homage to all those on the frontline, really.

I didn’t find it challenging to perform, as good writing is always so easy and it was a pretty simple set up to film it on my phone. Maybe navigating the dripping water was a little tricky… But the great triumph was getting to perform Sarah’s work and direct myself within it.

Creatively I’m handling the lockdown pretty well. Actors are used to long periods of keeping ourselves busy and I’ve had enough therapy to know how to avoid the abyss of negative thinking. Gentleness is key to all of it for me, one day at a time.

We’re not on holiday here, we’re living through a pandemic. Some days I’ll be productive and creative and other days I won’t. I’m not going to give myself a hard time if I don’t manage to write a novel in quarantine. Sometimes eating a chicken burger and watching The Real Housewives is all I can manage, and that’s alright.

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Related: WATCH: Amanda Coogan is hilariously wonderful in #DearIreland's 'Windowpane'

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